“We’re scared, we’re angry, we’re being marginalized and mistreated and even killed—this needs to stop.”
I keep seeing messages like this over and over again on social media.
And then I see people arguing with these kinds of posts. Usually white, cis-gendered people (often men), whose life experiences are completely different, and who apparently feel really uncomfortable hearing that other people are unhappy. They don’t want it to be true—not because they’re bad people necessarily, but because no one likes to feel uncomfortable. So they argue. They point out why this shouldn’t be true, suggest that things aren’t as bad as these people say they are, or maybe say that things are equally as bad for everyone. They start hashtags like #alllivesmatter.
These people need to stop talking and start listening. Really listening. Actively listening. And caring about what they’re hearing.
You can’t argue away someone else’s experiences. That belongs to them. That’s real. Yours are different. You come from a different place. You don’t get to say that your experiences are more right than theirs or that your sense of their experiences is more right than their actual experiences. All you get to do is listen. Actively.
In a beautiful essay for the blog The Establishment entitled “How My White Mother Helped Me Find My Blackness,” Ijeoma Uluo writes about saying to her white mother, “you know what it’s like to be a white woman who raised black kids . . . but mom, you are not black, and will never know what that’s like.” Even a mother who loves her children fiercely and unconditionally can’t claim to wholly understand what it’s like for them to move through the world with skin color different from her own.
I wish I knew how to make our country a less prejudiced, less racist, less misogynistic, and less bigoted a place. I vote for and donate to candidates who I believe will move us in that direction. I try to recognize my own limitations as someone who has benefited from white privilege all her life, and to pay attention when someone who hasn’t tells me what that’s like or describes insults, terrors, and injuries I have never experienced. I try to spread the voices of those who speak from firsthand knowledge and offer myself as an ally in any way that might be useful.
Mostly, I shut up and listen. Without arguing, without saying, “It’s not like that,” or “I think you’re overreacting,” or “I’ve had to deal with a lot of stuff, too” (all of which I’ve seen people say and do). Like Uluo’s mother, I cannot know what it’s like to live in this country with skin that isn’t white. But I can learn from those who do.
You can’t argue away someone else’s experiences. That belongs to them. That’s real. Yours are different. You come from a different place.